The final installment of "The Hobbit" doesn't just mark the conclusion of Bilbo Baggins' journey on the big screen. It's also the end of a massively successful film franchise that's earned New Line and Warner Bros. nearly $5 billion, going all the way back to the 2001 release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."
"I don't know what to compare it to because I've never been involved in a project that's gone on for so long or been such a huge success," said Toby Emmerich, president and CEO of New Line, the unit of Warner Bros. responsible for releasing "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" films over the past 13 years.
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The marketing campaign for "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" promises moviegoers "one last" trip to Middle-earth when it debuts in wide release Wednesday. Will it really be the final outing for all those dwarfs, elves, hobbits and orcs? After all, "The Hobbit" was originally envisioned as two, not three films.
"I wish I could say differently," said Emmerich. "There is nothing at New Line or Warner Bros. I think there could be another video game, and Middle-earth will probably live on in licensing and merchandising a while longer, but we do not have any plans, as far as I know, to tackle another Middle-earth movie."
"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson, who crafted all six of the films in his native New Zealand, was similarly adamant that he was finished adapting J.R.R. Tolkien, though he would "never say never" to a Middle-earth homecoming.
"If we wanted to — and I don't know whether I would want to or not — it's not a question I need to worry about," Jackson said in an interview in London to promote his final "Hobbit." "Warner Bros. has the rights to 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit,' and they don't have the rights to anything else," said the director, who will next work on an extended cut of "The Battle of the Five Armies."
The fate of Middle-earth continuing in other realms beyond literature could be decided in a courtroom. The Tolkien estate and Warner Bros., which doesn't have permission to adapt Tolkien's later work "The Silmarillion," have been legally sparring since 2012 over exactly what the studio's film rights entail when it comes to merchandising.
"The Tolkien estate is very protective, as they should be, and I don't begrudge them that at all," said Jackson, who has expressed interest in creating a "Lord of the Rings" museum in New Zealand. "They are very protective and I don't think there's a lot of room for Warner Bros. to move, particularly."
Is it possible New Line could take a cue from the producers of the James Bond film series, or from their very own colleagues at Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and use Tolkien's fantasy world as a backdrop for new stories? It recently proved both critically and financially successful for the video-game division.
After recasting Tolkien tales in virtual worlds, the interactive arm at Warner Bros. ventured into mostly uncharted territory earlier this year with Monolith Productions' "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor," a game set between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" centered on characters not depicted in the books.
"I think we'd be wary about taking too much creative license with Tolkien and making up stories ourselves that weren't based on what he wrote," said Emmerich. "It doesn't feel to me like what MGM and the Brocollis have so brilliantly done with Bond and Ian Fleming. From where I sit now, it really does feel like this is it."
Emmerich noted it's unlikely the studio would consider spin-off projects, say, a film centered on Evangeline Lilly's elf quarreler Tauriel, who was a new creation for "The Hobbit" films. Other than a possible "Shadow of Mordor" game follow-up, he insisted no return trips to Middle-earth have been booked — much to his own personal dismay.
"I've been to New Zealand like 25 or 30 times," said Emmerich. "I was saying to my wife that I really hope we figure out another movie to shoot there with Peter and (special effects studio) Weta because I really can't imagine not having a reason to go there. It's one of my favorite places in the world and not going anymore would make me sad."
Jill Lawless contributed to this report in London.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang.